Imani and Bahati have spent much of their week on the run in the underground apartment entertaining themselves with board games. They have gone above ground but only for very short periods of time. Creo has warned them against this, saying that even though there is no open call he knows of for their capture, there is no telling who Ekon may have hired.
Today, as they emerge from the floor of the abandoned house in the High District of Grot, they wait for any sounds or movements. The house is dank and musty. Except for the light that comes through the holes in the walls, there is no light. They step lightly, avoiding debris and forgotten furniture.
They hear no noise, and Imani assumes they are safe. The first time they left the tunnels, Imani had been apprehensive. Now, she is bold. She walks to the front door and opens it without hesitation.
“Are you crazy? You should maybe look out the window first,” Bahati says, shoving the door shut.
“This is our third time here. The High District is safe.”
“Look, you’ve been telling me how afraid you are in this whole mess, but you’re being careless. You can’t let your guard down.”
“We are safe here,” Imani says. She bites off a hangnail that has been bothering her.
Imani likes the High District more than she does the Low District. This part of the city is built upon a hill. She can see the most of the Low District from the highest point here. The mounds here are bigger than the ones in the Low District, better built and organized. The streets even have signs to tell people where they are.
The last time they were here, they met a friendly old man called Juju who gave them free exotic fruit he claimed came from another world. He was not rude or suspicious of Imani like the people were. He was used to seeing bots because some people in the High District have them.
Creo had told them to disguise themselves before leaving the tunnels. The closest they come to following his directions is wearing the big clothes in his closet. Imani is no fan of the big pants and puffy shirts, but she does not have a choice.
Bahati pulls back the curtains and peeps out the dusty window. Then, she gives the signal. The way is clear. Imani smiles, having known it would be. She is fascinated by Bahati’s paranoia. It has changed her from free spirit to nervous wreck. She keeps telling Imani their lives are in danger, but Imani feels no danger. They have not even come close to being identified or caught.
The city is awash in the blazing midday heat of the orange moon. The humps are close together, giving them a wavy look. Imani likens them to notes that rise and fall in a beautiful song. She can imagine herself living her final days here.
She and Bahati dodge and sidestep running children and rushing men and women. Traffic is heavy both on the ground and in the air. A speeding pod nearly collides with another and dips to avoid the collision. It comes within inches of Imani’s head, causing her braids to whip the air.
“Be careful, idiot,” Bahati screams at the taxi pod, as it floats away.
“That thing just about killed me. I’m lucky it didn’t take my head off.”
“I would have taken his head off.”
Imani takes Bahati’s hand in her own. “Look at my savior, avenging my hypothetical death.”
“We probably shouldn’t hold hands in public,” Bahati says, pulling away.
“What is anyone going to do? Turn us in to the enforcers.”
“They just may.”
“Why are you so concerned with what others think? They can’t tell you who you can and can’t love. They think I’m a bot, remember? They believe I’m your property.”
“They believe you believe you are a bot. They may not know the details of Experiment G-Three, but they know you’re human. And being affectionate with you, if you’re my property, is like me kissing a chair.”
“I can’t wait to leave this world. It’s cold and unwelcoming,” says Imani, looking away.
“I haven’t been to Earth, but how your people treat each other is the reason Experiment G-Three was started.”
Imani stops on the sidewalk, her abruptness nearly causing a man to bump with her. He gives her a few choice words, but she ignores him, fixing her gaze on Bahati. Breathing in, Imani can feel her blood pressure rising. She folds her arms across her chest and places her weight on one leg.
“So, we’re to blame for the UJC invading our planet, kidnapping people, making us slaves and destroying families,” Imani says, paying no mind to the passersby.
“Lower your voice before someone hears you. You’re making a scene,” Bahati says, placing a finger over her own mouth.
“I don’t care about making a scene,” she says, emphasizing every word. “I want you to say what you mean.”
“You’re taking it the wrong way. I was just saying there are a lot of injustices on Earth, and the UJC wanted to end them.”
“Oh, they were doing a good thing by invading my planet and taking me from my loved ones. I should give them some type of award.”
“You don’t understand.”
Imani throws her hands up. “You. Don’t. Understand. Your brother is a psycho ready to sell my people into interstellar slavery. I may not have a home to go back to if he has his way. You, him, your mother and the UJC are all to blame.”
Bahati gets in her face. “Don’t you dare speak about Mother that way. She wanted to help you Earthlings, even if you are all murderous savages,” she says.
“I’m glad to know how you really feel about me,” Imani says, storming away.
Bahati walks alongside her, attempting to apologize. As her heart thumps and her fists tremble, Imani pays Bahati no mind. Imani wipes a tear from her cheek but continues swiftly down the street without a word. She keeps her head straight, refusing to even look in her friend’s direction.
When Imani finally stops, her braids and face are soaked in sweat. Her chest heaves while she catches her breath. As she does, it dawns on her she has not seen this part of the High District before. She is on a downward hill a few blocks away from where the Low District begins.
“Are you done with your walkathon?” Bahati says, catching up. She is heaving for air too, her hands on her knees.
“I’m just catching my breath.”
“You know, if I had known you were this stubborn, I probably would have continued with your updates.”
“Well, luckily you didn’t,” she replies, walking again.
“I told you I was sorry. I shouldn’t have said those things back there. I was angry,” Bahati says.
They come to a park full of running children and frustrated parents. A boy stops before Imani and stares. He is no more than six years old she guesses, due to his small, rounded teeth. They will become longer and more pointed with age and his light green skin will darken. She waves at the boy and he returns the gesture, still staring as if he does not know what to make of her.
The green grass takes on an orange hue underneath the moon, making the blades seem like wavering strands of fire. Imani sighs, as she cuts past a family having a picnic that forces her to think of her own. She wonders what her family is doing now. Have they forgotten about her, cast her off as dead? Or do they think of her every moment of every day?
“You don’t have to think so hard. There’s nothing for you to worry about,” Bahati says, taking Imani’s hand.
Imani thinks to yank away, but something inside does not allow her. Bahati’s hands are not soft as her own, but they carry none of the roughness Imani would expect from a reptilian’s scaly skin. Her friend’s claws are neatly trimmed and rounded in a way which does not allow them to scrape her hand. Imani squeezes in return.
“I really am sorry about what I said,” Bahati says sincerely.
“What if I never make it back to Earth, to my family.”
“You will. I promise.”
“I know you mean well, but you can’t promise me something you don’t have any control over,” Imani says, looking down at her feet. “That’s a real question. What if I never make it back?”
“Then, we’ll go places, see things. There is a whole universe out there for us to explore.”
“We’ll be fugitives, always running from Ekon.”
“He won’t chase us. I won’t be here to annoy or threaten him,” Bahati says. She lifts Imani’s chin with her forefinger.
“He doesn’t seem like the type to give up. Either way, I don’t want to be an interstellar refugee with no home to return to. Maybe I was better off on updates and not knowing.”
“You’re human. Those updates numbed you of everything it means to be human or be alive. Don’t talk that way.”
Imani sighs, looking in the opposite direction, as she tucks her braids behind her ear. She feels stress tugging at her. Having been cooped up in that small apartment for so long, Imani guesses she and Bahati are both irritable, but Imani feels she is shifting closer to the edge. Once she tumbles over it, she knows she won’t ever rebound from the fall.
The two walk until nearly at the threshold that separates the two districts of Grot. Bahati says the Low District is too dangerous, so they turn back the way they came. Bahati holds a conversation, but Imani is barely present for it. Her mind wanders until she is daydreaming about her family’s reaction if they ever see her again.
The moon is setting, and the crowds have thinned. Imani and Bahati no longer have to straddle the sidewalk and street to avoid being bumped. As the streets quiet down, Bahati suggests they head back to the apartment after getting some food. Imani agrees, knowing they make an easy target to spot when the streets are vacant.
They have not eaten at many places in the High District, but the food is not popular with Bahati. She complains it is too similar to what is found in the capital. The Low District caters to the locals, so the food is more authentic to their culture. The High District caters to tourists from all over by offering what it considers higher quality selections. So, Imani and Bahati debate about where to eat.
“This is probably the best place to eat,” Imani says, frustrated as she motions to the restaurant behind her. They are at the highest point on the hill. From here, they can see the entire Low District.
“I’m not interested in eating seaweed and sponges,” Bahati says.
“Are my eyes fooling me, or do I see a princess?” a voice yells from across the street, and Imani knows their disguises have failed.
Imani remembers Damu, the boy who harassed them her first time in Grot. He has even more tattoos on his rough face bleeding down his neck and disappearing beneath his black jacket. When he grins, his silver-dipped fang teeth wink in the fading light. He cracks his knuckles, as he and his cronies cross the street, and Imani cringes inside.
Bahati does not meet Imani’s worried glance. Instead, she focuses on the two boys and girl headed their way. Bahati’s scales draw together, becoming so tight they harden. The ones approaching them take no notice, and Imani wavers where she stands.
The wind picks up, and Imani can smell Damu. His odor reminds her of trash and rot. It is more vile than he is. She never takes her eyes from him. He and his gang get closer, and he grins wider than before.
“Cool outfit. Or disguise or whatever,” Damu says, eyeing Bahati.
“Damu, what do you want? We’re busy,” Bahati says nonchalantly.
“Now this,” he replies, spreading his arms, “is a place I’d expect to see a princess. The High District.”
“I’m just looking for a place to eat. There’s nothing good,” she says. She looks at Imani. “Let’s go.”
The three surround the two, and Imani swallows hard. No saliva is in her mouth. It is dry as a desert. Her hands tremble more, but Bahati seems composed. Imani senses that her friend’s composure is a thin veil on the brink of being torn apart.
“Come with us. I know of plenty of places you can get something to eat. Isn’t that right, Kali?” Damu says, expression suspended between grin and grimace.
“Yeah. No worries. We’ll make sure you are fed well,” says Kali, the rings in her face jingling.
“I think we’ll pass. It’s late, and we have places to be,” says Bahati.
“The princess has a bedtime? Aww. How cute, but it wasn’t a request,” Damu says. “You’re coming with us.” He reaches for Bahati’s wrist, but she yanks away.
“Why would we be going anywhere with you street vermin? Don’t put your filthy claws on me.”
“We have a fighter. I like fighters,” Kali says, laughing.
“Why won’t you just leave us alone? We have done nothing to you,” Imani says pleadingly.
Damu squints, as if seeing her for the first time. “This is Grot. High District or Low District, we don’t want uppity scum in our city.”
“Then, we’ll leave.”
“Be quiet, Imani,” Bahati says, fixing her with a glare.
“Listen to your owner, bot. It’s too late to leave. It is an honor to be buried in Grot. It’s something only the locals are privileged to, but we’ll make an exception for you two,” Damu says.
Kali reaches for Bahati, but she is too slow. Before Kali can touch her, Bahati has her wrist in her grasp. She bends the other girl’s arm back until it begins to snap. Damu and the other boy move to help, but Bahati warns that she will break the arm if they come any closer. They surrender, hands up, but Damu is furious.
“I told you, we only want something to eat. We do not want trouble. Is that so hard to understand?” Bahati says, emphasizing her words by slowly putting more pressure on Kali’s wrist.
“We were just fooling around. Let go of my arm,” Kali says through clenched teeth.
“We aren’t in the mood for fooling around. Leave us alone,” she says, pushing Kali to the ground as she lets her loose.
Damu and his other comrade move to help Kali up. She is shaking her wrist and cursing. Damu is angrier than Kali, though. He balls his fists and steps to Bahati. He is about to explode.
“We tried to take it easy on you, but you messed that up. You’ll be begging me for forgiveness when you get what’s coming to you,” Damu says, spitting on the ground.
“Thanks for the prediction. I’ll keep that in mind,” says Bahati, her eyes never leaving his.
Damu and his gang back away, angry glares on their faces. When they are out of sight, Bahati sighs. She shrinks like a neglected flower right before Imani’s eyes. The easy bravado that was there melts, leaves behind a weary Bahati.
“Do you think they’ll come back?” Imani asks quietly.
“Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. If not today, they’ll be looking for us eventually.”
“We should go back to the capital then.”
“Going back there will do us no good. We’ll be in the mouth of the predator.”
Before they can continue their conversation, someone calls to them from the restaurant behind. It is Juju, the old man who had given them fruit a couple days ago. The apron he is wearing dusts the ground, too long for his bent frame. He smiles at them.
“Didn’t expect to see you today, Ti-Ti,” he says, calling Bahati’s alias.
Imani feels weird having befriended this man while concealing their identities. He has been honest with them, and she wants to return the favor.
“Hey. What are you doing here? Don’t you have a fruit stand to run,” Bahati says.
“That fruit stand isn’t my job. It’s my hobby.” He gestures to the restaurant behind him. “This is my business. Well, it’s my son’s now, but I still help out.”
“Is the food any good?”
The question takes him aback. He regains his composure and says it is the best food in town. He challenges them to come inside and find out for themselves. It will be the best they have ever had he promises. His confidence is contagious. Imani believes this will be the best meal she has ever had.
As soon as they enter, Imani licks her lips, but that does nothing to quiet her grumbling stomach. She had not realized how hungry she is, but the spices in the air remind her. She and Bahati take a booth in the corner of the establishment, since Bahati insists on being able to see the entrance.
The stone tables are wide and the seats are set far away from them. Bahati is comfortable, but Imani must sit on the edge of her seat to reach the table. The ambiance demands quietness, so Imani complains in a low voice. Bahati tells her to stop whining. There is nothing they can do to make the seats and table closer. Imani begrudgingly complies.
Thirty minutes later, there are platters of food on their table. It is enough to feed a party twice their size. As smoke drifts from the plates, Imani doubts she will be able to eat even a quarter of the food. Yet the selections look so enticing, she decides she will try.
The first thing she tries is the bird. It has been plucked and cooked but otherwise unchanged. The eyes, head and talons are still there. Using an oversized fork, Imani pulls the meat apart without much effort. It melts in her mouth. The spices are tangy and addictive. She is surprised by how light the meat is. Even after eating the whole bird, her stomach feels no fuller.
When Imani looks up, Bahati has finished a large amount of the food alone. She does not take a sip of any drink, but Imani does. The cool liquid cleanses her palate, and she goes for some sweet chunks of meat. They are as tender as the bird was but are heavier. She eats a majority of them, while her belly protests.
Within the span of an hour, the two girls have finished just about every dish. Bahati says she could probably eat more, but Imani fears bursting. If she takes down one more vegetable or slice of meat, Imani is positive she will split down the center.
Juju shows up when the table is clear and slides in the booth beside Imani. The creases in his scaly face are quadrupled by his wide smile. Imani wonders if she has ever seen him not smile.
“What do you think of the food?” Juju asks anxiously.
“It is delicious. The best,” Imani says, her leg bouncing beneath the table.
“I agree. Where do I get the recipe? We can use food like this in the capital,” Bahati says.
“It is a family secret,” Juju says, wagging a clawed finger. “You can eat here anytime, though.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
He glances around, then lowers his voice. The smile is still on his face but has left his eyes. “Ti-Ti, even dressed as you are, everyone knows who you are, Bahati.”
Bahati stares at the old man, her hands drawing closed. “I don’t know any Bahati.”
“We here in Grot do not get into the capital’s affairs. We pay our taxes and live our lives. The High District even welcomes tourists, but ones from the capital never stay long, especially when their brother is high speaker.” His smile is completely gone now.
“What do you want?” Bahati pushes her hair behind her ear.
Juju turns his hands over. “I want nothing but to help you.”
“Why would you want to help me? Grot has no love for the capital.”
He leans across the table. “Khalia was the first high speaker in decades to even try and reach out to Grot. She is the reason so many of us can work in the capital and earn a living.”
“I’ve been hearing things like that lately. Didn’t realize Mother was such a diplomat,” she says sarcastically.
“She was. I can tell you’re running from something. This is why you dress ridiculous and hope no one notices you and your bot. They do, even if they say nothing,” says Juju.
Bahati stands, but he places a hand on hers. She exhales sharply but sits. Imani shifts in her seat, not knowing what will come next. With the back of her trembling hand, she wipes sweat from her forehead and goes back to biting her nails.
“There is nothing you can do to help. I’m glad you’re concerned, but I got this,” Bahati says aggressively.
“Maybe you think you do, but you don’t. You’re just a girl. I’m experienced. I have connections. Tell me what is wrong, and I will help–”
The door slams open, and Imani squeals at the sight of Tau Bot accompanied by three enforcers in black and orange armor. Damu steps from between them and points at Bahati as she looks over her shoulder. She comes to her feet without hesitation, as does Juju with a quickness Imani would not have figured was there. The other patrons, jarred out of their private conversations, are alarmed but do not run.
“Stay where you are, hands up,” one of the enforcers says, his laser gun aimed at Bahati.
“You can’t just barge in my business. You’ll pay for that door you ruined,” Juju says, stepping in front of Bahati.
“This is official capital business. Step aside,” Tau Bot says. The enforcers are taller, but Tau is no small man. His shirt hugs his muscles, making him appear bigger. His bald head shines like a polished pebble. It is hard for Imani to believe he is human.
“I don’t take orders from bots,” says Juju.
“Kill all of them,” Damu says, yelling.
The enforcer with the drawn weapon takes steps toward them, but Juju steps up and blocks him. Imani has backed away to where the counter is. The door to the kitchen is just behind the counter, but Bahati is not coming this way. Instead, she steps from behind Juju, giving the enforcer a clear line of fire toward her.
“You mad about what I did to your little girlfriend?” Bahati says to Damu, taunting him.
“I’m going to rip you apart, Princess,” he says, charging in her direction only to be blocked by the other enforcer.
“You don’t want to fight. I’ll show you what a princess is capable of.”
A woman at the table beside the enforcers stands up, followed by a few other women and men. They make a line between the two groups, separating the enforcers from Juju and the rest. Imani feels the temperature rise, as tempers flare.
“I don’t know what that girl did to you,” the first woman says, pointing at Bahati while speaking to the enforcer with the weapon. “I don’t care. This is a respectable business, and what goes on in the capital has nothing to do with us. I suggest you catch that girl on a later date.” The other people grumble in agreement.
“That’s not going to happen. I suggest you mind your business,” Tau says. His voice drips with confidence, as he locks eyes with Imani. She can tell he is no longer on updates, but his are glossed over with rage.
The woman takes another step forward and is met with the handle of the enforcer’s gun. Her body crumples with a thud. Maybe she is not dead. Maybe she is. Her eyes are open, but Imani sees no life. The blow enrages the other patrons. They do not cower. They charge, and chaos ensues.
The melee is the perfect opportunity for Imani and Bahati to run, but Bahati chooses to fight. An enforcer tries to take her down, and she flips him over her back to the floor. She is about to engage another, when Juju grabs her. He shakes her to get her attention. As he points behind the counter, he tells her to run. Imani is waiting anxiously at the counter, as she watches the exchange.
“Let’s go,” Bahati yells over the fighting.
Imani and Bahati leap over the counter and are about to push through the door to the kitchen when Imani hears a guttural groan. Juju stumbles in their direction, blood dripping from his mouth. He falls, a knife protruding from his back. Imani is about to go back for him, but Bahati grabs her arm, says Juju is dead and they must go. Imani nods absently.
The kitchen is cluttered with large, loud machinery that drowns out what is happening in the dining area. It is so loud back here, Imani can not hear herself yelling to Bahati to slow down. The staff are busy chopping fruits and vegetables. They glance at the two girls but go back to their work without question.
Imani thinks they should warn the staff, they should tell someone. Where is Juju’s son? He should know his father’s fate. None of her thoughts reach fruition or become actions. She is busy dodging hot grills, fryers and avoiding being accidently stabbed by careless cooks. Ladles hanging from a shelf forces her to duck and slide.
As they reach the back door, Imani looks over her shoulder and sees Tau Bot and the enforcer who has not put away his weapon. The enforcer fires in her direction, burning holes through the red wall beside her. Terror freezes her where she stands. She commands her legs to move, but they disobey. A rough yank from Bahati gets her out the back door.
“Wake up, or you’re going to get yourself killed,” Bahati says angrily.
The moon has set, leaving the world masked in darkness. Bahati’s irises become shimmering golden discs and her pupils dilate, her night vision kicking in. After Imani slams into a few walls and stumbles over her feet, Bahati takes her hand and leads the way. Imani struggles to keep her footing, so she is not dragged.
“They went down that alley,” Tau says. Imani can not see him, but the clarity in his voice tells her he is near.
Bahati pulls Imani deeper into the alley. It is rank with dirty water and tall trash containers. Imani does not stop when Bahati does and crashes into a wall she did not know was there. The impact knocks her down into a puddle of water. She gags, as she gathers herself. Her hands and face are wet and gritty.
“I’d think they would do a better job keeping their alleys clean in the High District,” Bahati says, helping Imani up.
Imani is about to reply, but Bahati snaps a hand over her mouth. Tau and the enforcer creep down the alley, breathing raggedly but saying nothing. Bahati whispers that they will have to hide in a garbage container. Once she gives Imani a boost over the top of the dumpster, she climbs in.
“It smells horrible,” Imani says, wiping slime from her hands. Her movement causes bags to ruffle.
“Would you please shut up?”
The two men splash through the puddles, and Tau flashes a light in every corner. He says he is sure they came this way. The enforcer is doubtful and disagrees. Tau flashes the light toward the dumpster, and Imani ducks her head. The two men debate a while, before giving up. It feels like an eternity before Imani breathes again.
“Are they gone?” Imani asks quietly.
Bahati inhales a couple times and peeks over the side of the dumpster. She whispers the men have left. Imani tries to climb out, but Bahati holds her back. They wait a few moments. Nothing happens, so Bahati gives the signal to leave.
“This has gotten out of hand. Juju got killed and this had nothing to do with him,” Imani says, pacing the floor of the apartment. The bed is drawn into the couch, yet the space still feels crowded.
“He didn’t have to die,” Bahati says, sitting on the couch, head drooping.
“Of course, he didn’t,” she says, raising her voice. This is the angriest Imani has ever felt. She is also sad for the Juju. He lost his life for no reason. This reptilian world has been forsaken by hope. Her heart thuds against her ribcage, as if it will leap from her chest at any moment.
“Why are you yelling at me? This isn’t my fault. You’re the one who stole the journal.”
“Stealing a journal justifies your brother’s henchmen killing an innocent man?”
“Nothing justifies killing an innocent. The moment we met Juju, his life was in danger. Like it or not, we’re wanted criminals.”
Imani tosses her hands in the air. “I’m no criminal. Ekon is the criminal. You heard what Creo said. He will destroy my planet and yours.”
“He will not destroy Yabisi. Without us, he has nothing,” Bahati says evenly.
“You think destruction is all about fire and murdering? It isn’t. He can dismantle this world from the inside. He can destroy the will of the people.”
“What if he does? What do you suggest?”
Imani sits beside Bahati, looking her in the eyes. Blood pumps through Imani’s veins ten times faster than normal. She considers what she is about to say, restructures it and reconsiders. There is no way to say what she is thinking without coming off as a girl with a death wish.
“You said you could get us an interstellar pod, right? We have to get to Earth to warn them of what’s to come,” Imani says, her leg bouncing as she bites her nail past the skin. She does not notice her finger bleeding.
Bahati jerks to her feet, as if yanked upward. “Have you lost your mind? In order to get the pod, we have to get to the capital. On top of that, we have to convince Earthlings of an alien invasion to come.”
“Why is it so hard to believe we can do that?”
“Because Earthlings know nothing of interstellar travel. They will think you’re crazy and I’m a monster. They’ll lock you in an asylum and use me as a science experiment.”
“You will be proof,” Imani says, pointing at her.
“So, tell them my people are coming to destroy them. That’ll work out great for me,” Bahati says sarcastically.
“We can paint you as the good amongst evil.”